Published December 21, 2012
"Sophia, Daniel," I yelled across the apartment at my seven-year-old and five-year-old who were playing together in their bedroom. "The school bus arrives in 10 minutes. Let's see who can brush their teeth and get to the door first."
They dashed towards the bathroom, giggling. Two minutes later, Daniel had won with Sophia a close second. I smiled at my own victory. I had achieved my goal of getting them to the door with their teeth brushed in record time.
Or did I?
Yes, they were at the door in time. But two minutes from start to finish meant that they didn't brush their teeth very well, they definitely didn't floss, and the bathroom was a mess.
We all know how important it is to have goals, right? And not just any goals, but stretch goals. Big Hairy Audacious Goals (or BHAGs, as they're known to the inner goal-setting crowd).
It makes sense: if you don't know specifically where you're going, then you'll never get there. And if you don't set the bar high enough, you'll never live up to your potential.
This is accepted common sense in the business world and it's reinforced by research. Like that study done on the Harvard Business School class you may have heard of, in which only 3% of the graduating students wrote down clear goals. Twenty years later, those 3% were worth 10 times the worth of the rest of the class combined. Compelling, right?
It would be if it were true. But it isn't. That study doesn't exist. It's pure urban myth.
Still, that's just one specious story. Questioning the wisdom of setting stretch goals is like questioning the very foundation of business. We might debate which goals to set, or how to set them, but who would debate whether to set goals at all?
I'd like to.
It's not that goals, by their nature, are bad. It's just that they come with a number of side effects that suggest you may be better off without them.
The authors of a Harvard Business School working paper, Goals Gone Wild, reviewed a number of research studies related to goals and concluded that the upside of goal setting has been exaggerated and the downside, the "systematic harm caused by goal setting," has been disregarded.
They identified clear side effects associated with goal setting, including "a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation."
Here are two of the examples of goals gone wild the authors described in their paper:
Sears set a productivity goal for their auto repair staff of bringing in $147 for every hour of work. Did this motivate employees? Sure. It motivated them to overcharge on a companywide basis.
Remember the Ford Pinto? A car that ignited when it was rear-ended? The Pinto resulted in 53 deaths and many more injuries because workers omitted safety checks in pursuit of Lee Iacocca's BHAG goal of a car that would be "under 2000 pounds and under $2,000" by 1970.
And here's another, via the New York Times:
Ken O'Brien, the former New York Jets quarterback, was throwing too many interceptions. So he was given what seemed to be a pretty reasonable goal — fewer interceptions thrown — and penalized financially for every one. It worked. He threw fewer interceptions. But only because he threw fewer passes. His overall performance suffered.
It's practically impossible to predict the negative side effects of a goal.
When we set goals, we're taught to make them specific and measurable and time-bound. But it turns out that those characteristics are precisely the reasons goals can backfire. A specific, measurable, time-bound goal drives behavior that's narrowly focused and often leads to either cheating or myopia. Yes, we often reach the goal, but at what cost?
So what can you do in the absence of goals? It's still often necessary to drive toward achievements, especially in business. We need help setting direction and measuring progress. But maybe there's a better way to achieve those things while sidestepping goals' negative side effects.
I want to propose one: Instead of identifying goals, consider identifying areas of focus.
A goal defines an outcome you want to achieve; an area of focus establishes activities you want to spend your time doing. A goal is a result; an area of focus is a path. A goal points to a future you intend to reach; an area of focus settles you into the present.
A sales goal, for example, might name a revenue target or a specific number of new clients won. An operations goal might articulate a cost savings.
An area of focus in sales, on the other hand, might involve having lots of conversations with appropriate prospects. An operations area of focus might identify areas you want to explore for cost savings.
Obviously these aren't mutually exclusive. You could have a goal and an area of focus. In fact, one could argue that you need both together — the goal specifies where you're going and the area of focus describes how you plan to get there.
But there is a benefit to concentrating on an area of focus without a goal.
An area of focus taps into your intrinsic motivation, offers no stimulus or incentive to cheat or take unnecessary risks, leaves every positive possibility and opportunity open, and encourages collaboration while reducing corrosive competition. All while moving forward on the things you and your organization value most.
In other words, an area of focus offers all the advantages of a goal without the negative side effects.
How do you do it? It's simple: identify the things you want to spend your time doing — or the things that you and your manager decide are the most valuable use of your time — and spend your time doing those things. The rest takes care of itself. I have found that five major things are about the limit before your efforts get diluted.
The key is to resist the temptation to identify the outcome you want to achieve. Leave that open and allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised. I'm not suggesting that this is easy to do. I never realized how goal-focused I was until I tried to stop focusing on goals. Without goals, I found it hard to trust that anything would get done at all.
But things got done. And in my experience, not only will you achieve at least as much as you would have if you had set goals, but you'll enjoy the process far more, avoiding unnecessary stress and temptation.
In other words, if we focus on the tasks instead of the outcome, my kids will still get to the door on time, but they will have flossed, brushed thoroughly, and left the bathroom clean too.
Peter Bregman is a strategic advisor to CEOs and their leadership teams. His latest book is 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done. This article originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review.